When I was nineteen, I worked in the Woolworths deli. The one in the Malvern Central Shopping Centre, near the Baker’s Delight where on Saturdays you could buy Finger Buns, sprinkled with hundreds and thousands, from the skinny redhead with braces. She’d pluck the biggest one, with the most cream, from the case and tuck it into a paper bag just so, making sure you didn’t end up with it smooshed. When things were going bad with Hannah, which is to say a lot, I’d consider asking the redhead for her number. I’d stand there, staring for a few seconds like an idiot after she’d handed me the bag, and she’d be smiling that closed-mouth smile of hers—the one she must’ve practiced in the mirror a million times.
The thing with Hannah was—she wasn’t the smartest cookie. That’s how she’d say it, when she wanted to pause a movie to ask about the plot. Head tilted to the side, face scrunched up. ‘I know I’m not the smartest cookie, but I just don’t get it.’ Or if she was getting defensive in an argument, and I started throwing out three syllable words. Arms crossed, eyes half-squinted. ‘I know I’m not the smartest cookie, but I’ve got life experience—I’m street smart.’
The other thing about Hannah was that she was walking sex. A hot little thing barely over five foot, flat stomach, belly-button pierced and sparkling, delicious pillowy tits that were almost too big—if there were such a thing—light brown hair with blonde highlights, long enough so the occasional strand fell into her cleavage. Plump, pink, glossy lips and almond-shaped diluted blue eyes. A perfect face, one that led to her mum dragging her to a modelling agency as a six year old. Her big break came in the form of an ad campaign for the Leukemia Prevention Institute. My girl—the cancer poster child, but when her tits came in at age eleven that kind of work dried up. Her next job was in the deli.
She was only a couple months younger than me but still in her last year of high school when we met, on account of being held back a year. I used to pick her up in my boxy, piece of shit Volvo, waiting across the road from the school gates surrounded by SUVs and peroxide-blonde MILFs. My mates thought it must be a treat to unzip that chequered green school girl dress, or better yet, tell her to keep it on, but I wasn’t interested. Hannah acted young enough as it was—she’d watch TV shows meant for kids, and I mean little kids, not Pokemon or even something from Disney. I’m talking about the shit where the gender neutral sock puppets draw shapes for an afternoon. She’d watch that shit and then mumble half-words in a high-pitched toddler’s whine, like she wanted to get back there or something. On graduating, she planned to get into childcare, and that sounded about right to me. If I’m honest, a part of me wondered if it wasn’t a problem that I was fucking her, like those freaks that touched up downsy kids, and that kind of thing. I supposed her acting that way had something to do with her mum being a single parent, paying more attention to a bottle of wine each night than her daughter. Still, that childish shit definitely factored into our ending.
We dated for a year, and for about half that time I wanted to break up, but I admit it—I was chicken shit. I’d made too many promises I knew I couldn’t keep. Too many “I-love-yous” and “forevers” and “you’re-my-everythings” I didn’t mean. The situation with her mum didn’t make it any easier. They lived in a two-bedroom council flat in Prahran. One of those brown and cream buildings with a million windows, soaring into the sky. The inside was as big as my parents’ living room, but they’d done a good job of making it nice. Textured white wallpaper, tempting to touch and second-hand, multi-coloured Indian rugs that concealed uneven floorboards.
When I went over, Hannah’s mum would open the door, place a hand on my chest and plant a long, wet kiss on my cheek before shouting to Hannah that I’d arrived. She worked admin for a charity. It didn’t pay well, and I knew Hannah helped her with the rent. She was the same height as her daughter, and I imagined she looked like her when she was young. But where Hannah’s skin glowed and was rubber band tight, her mum’s was raw pink and sagged. Her bloated stomach often peeked out beneath the colourfully patterned, loose shirts she wore. I figured it was because of the drinking. A bottle of wine a night, Hannah told me, sometimes two. When I had dinner there she didn’t keep it on the table but went to the kitchen every time she’d drained her glass, as though I was meant to think it was some kind of magic trick. She liked to tell me stories about travelling through India, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia when she was my age. ‘You kids think you need to keep studying, but I got an education in life, before this one came along,’ she’d say, pointing a fork at Hannah.
One night, after she’d refilled her glass more times than I cared to count, Hannah reached for something across the table and accidentally knocked over her mum’s wine.
‘Jesus, Hannah,’ her mum said standing up.
‘Sorry.’ Hannah stood too and dabbed at the spill with a serviette, but her mum grabbed her wrist.
‘Don’t! Just don’t!’ she shouted.
Hannah pulled away and fled the table.
‘I hate her,’ she said to me in her bedroom. ‘I hate living here.’
Around our ten month anniversary, my mates planned a trip to Thailand. Some of them had been before. They promised all-night parties and white sand beaches flooded with pussy.
‘Everyone gets laid at the Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan,’ they said. ‘Say it’s a boys’ trip. Fool around and don’t tell her.’
But I couldn’t do that. I’ve done things I’m not proud of, but I’ve still got morals.
A month later, when the boys were pressuring me for an answer, this guy pushed a couple of women onto the train tracks at Glen Huntly Station. The news said it was eight in the morning on a weekday. He was in his late forties, five foot eight, stocky and balding with a round face. He wore a woollen coat over a suit and was carrying a satchel. An accountant. Just a normal guy on his way to work. But as the train rounded the bend and came into view down the tracks, he rushed to the platform’s edge and started shoving. People ran when they saw what he was up to, but two old ladies weren’t able to move quick enough, and they dropped the metre or so onto the steel rails. It ended up being okay—the driver managed to stop the train and neither of them hit their heads on the way down. Some men jumped down to help them up, others pinned the guy till the cops arrived. Apparently, he was calm and didn’t say anything. Nothing about voices in his head telling him to do it. No rant about anyone controlling his thoughts. He wasn’t even angry. Later, he told the cops it was an urge, something he’d felt before but never acted on.
The thing was that Glen Huntly was my station. Every now and then, Hannah got sick of watching romantic comedies and eating pizza in my bed and she’d say ‘Baby, I’m bored. Take me out. I want to dress up.’ And I’d give in, and we’d catch a train from Glen Huntly into the city for dinner—one of the restaurants in Crown Casino or down by Southbank. Me in my best suit, she in something sparkly and low-cut that had the waiter refilling our water every five minutes. But the last time time we went, I got this notion, standing on the platform with Hannah resting her head against my chest, and the horn of the train sounding in the distance. I pictured myself taking a hold of Hannah’s arms, her looking up at me with wide eyes as though she were saying, ‘What’s wrong?’ and then I tighten my grip and push her onto the tracks.
I shuddered at the thought.
‘You okay?’ Hannah asked as the train pulled in.
‘Yeah, just a bit cold.’
She rubbed her hand up and down my back. ‘Come on,’ she said, pulling me toward the open carriage doors.
It’s not something I’d ever do. I knew that. Everyone gets the impulse to jump on the tracks or off the top of a tall building when they look down. Don’t they? This was like that. Not something I’d act on, and it wasn’t the first time I’d felt that sort of thing. But what if that guy who pushed those women thought he’d never do it either?
I ended up telling my mates to count me in for Thailand, buying the plane tickets and booking accommodation with them, but I still didn’t say anything to Hannah. She was an intuitive one though. I was taking longer to respond to her texts, making plans with the boys on what were normally our movie nights. Once, I even turned down a handjob she’d half-started. She responded to all that by hanging out more with Gaz—a sixteen year old from the produce department. Movies, bowling, things an underage kid can do. That’s what she told me anyway. Gaz didn’t look sixteen. He was a buff kid, six feet tall with thick arms and a broad chest that boasted a mound of dark curly hairs sticking out the neck of his uniform. Everyone knew he had a crush on Hannah. I told my mates I didn’t care if she fucked him—I only hoped she was using a rubber so I wouldn’t catch anything. Truth is, I didn’t think she’d cheat on me. She was better than that.
A week from the flight out, I finally told her I was going and what it meant for us. She didn’t seem surprised and actually asked me questions about the trip—how long’s the flight over? Which islands were we going to? Was I excited? But her eyes were sort of wet the whole time, and her smile kept falling off as though she were having trouble holding her lips up.
Thailand was good, great even. I probably should’ve felt some guilt or missed Hannah or something, but I didn’t. It was two weeks of plastic buckets filled with vodka and Redbull, pad thai for breakfast and sweating out hangovers on the beach. There was only one girl—Emily. She was Irish, five years older than me, drunk and asking for a Band-Aid for a cut on her leg she didn’t remember getting. But once we got to my room she wasn’t interested in the Band-Aid. She shoved me onto the bed and pulled off my pants as though they were attacking me. I told her I didn’t have a condom and in her sing-song lilting accent she said ‘Fuck it. Just put it in will ya.’
So I did.
When I got back to Melbourne, friends in the deli told me Hannah had been having a pretty good time too. She got her nose pierced, a tattoo and was partying a lot. Also she was fucking Gaz.
I wasn’t bothered by any of that, but I was anxious about our first shift together since the break up, expecting tears, meat thrown at me in anger or maybe the silent treatment.
‘Hey!’ she said as I entered the deli. She was serving an old guy at the counter.
‘Hi,’ I said, tying on my green and red deli apron and joining her. A bunch of customers were waiting, and the glowing red number above the ticket dispenser read fifty-two. I pressed the button behind the counter—an electric squawk sounded and the numbers rolled up one. ‘Customer fifty-three,’ I called out. The line of people glanced down at their tickets, none of them stepped forward. ‘Customer fifty-three,’ I called again.
I was about to press the button again when a large woman with dyed-red hair came bounding down one of the aisles, waving her hand in the air and shouting ‘I’m fifty-three. I’m fifty-three.’
The bitter smell of her perfume smacked me, even from across the counter, and I had the image of her lowering herself—fully clothed—into a bathtub of bright purple liquid. ‘What can I get for you, ma’am?’
She smiled. Her mouth was full of giant white teeth, like refrigerators. ‘I want six skinless chicken breasts, equal in size and weight.’ She gave me another flash of her whitegoods.
Hannah, who was serving a new customer, looked over and rolled her eyes. I smiled, appreciating the gesture and thinking we might be all right after all.
At the benches, wrapping up the chicken, Hannah came over with some feta. ‘H-i-i-i,’ she said with a big smile. ‘S-o-o-o, how was your trip?’
‘It was good.’
‘That’s good. I had a good time here too.’
‘Oh, yeah. Sorry, how are you? You got your nose pierced.’
‘Yeah!’ She turned, showing me the gold stud. ‘You like it?’
‘Excuse me,’ the woman I was serving called. ‘I don’t have all day.’
I rolled my eyes, and Hannah giggled.
It was busy for the next couple hours, but then there was a lull, and I went to the shelving, on the far side of the deli, to check my phone and take a breather. A minute later, Hannah followed.
‘I got a tattoo,’ she said.
I looked up from my phone. ‘Oh, yeah, I heard that too.’
‘You wanna see?’
She untucked her shirt, turned around and lifted it up. On her lower back were two green fish swimming in opposite directions. A line split both their middles, joining them.
‘Oh, you got a tramp stamp.’
She spun around, frowning. ‘It’s not a tramp stamp. They’re fish. Because I’m a Pisces, and it makes an H, see—’ She half-turned and lifted up the flap of her shirt again.
‘I get that. But it’s on your lower back. You know that’s a thing, right?’
‘I thought you’d like it.’ She tucked her shirt back in, walked off and didn’t speak to me for the rest of the shift.
We didn’t work together again. Friends told me she asked our manager to change the roster, and a month later I got an internship at an accounting firm and quit.
I didn’t contact her over the next few months. But that didn’t stop her from trying to get in touch. At first there were phone calls followed by voicemails that said ‘Just wanted to see how you’re doing. It’s Han. Call me back. Okay loveya.’
After that there came text messages, often at two a.m. or later, on the weekend.
HOW R U? loveya XxXO
Why wont u talk to me…… xxO
Cant we b friends?
For about a month I was seeing another intern from the accounting firm. It was casual, nice and different to Hannah, who heard about the girl and sent me a Facebook message about my status still reading SINGLE—herd u need to change ur relationship status. I blocked her after that. Our friends told me she hadn’t exactly been sitting at home, waiting for me to knock on her door. There were stories of her being helped off dancefloors and carried out of cubicle stalls with vomit in her hair. Sunday morning shifts where she scrambled into the deli puffy-eyed, stinking of vodka. The thing with Gaz was done and she’d spend the rest of the shift chewing on twiggy sticks and telling everyone about the uni dorm, hostel room or apartment she’d woken up in. Making up for lost time, she told our friends, and I figured that was fair enough.
Six months after the breakup, I got another message, different to the others.
Can we meet up? I need to talk to you. Please don’t ignore me.
No crazy capitals. She’d even spelt out every word ‘cause she knew that shit bugged me. Something was up, so I texted back.
Sure. How about coffee at Giorgio’s tomorrow at three?
Too much time had passed for her to be pregnant—one of our friends would’ve told me. After Thailand, I made sure I got tested for STDs and knew I was clear. Maybe it was to do with her mum and she wanted advice from someone who understood the situation? It might be good to tell her to take it easy on the drink and drugs and fucking as well. Tell her I still cared about her as a person.
Giorgio’s was a cafe near the deli where we used to meet our friends for coffee or drinks after work. It was on the corner of Glenferrie Road and High Street, and big enough, I thought, for us to hide in. I got there first and took a table in the back. Ten minutes later, I caught sight of Hannah but instead of looking around she sat down at a table in the middle of the floor. Sighing, I stood up and went over.
‘Oh, hey!’ She shot up and leant her face forward, as if by instinct, before she caught herself, gave me an awkward side-hug and sat back down. She was wearing a black singlet and thigh-hugging denim shorts. On her neck was this massive turquoise piece of costume jewellery, sagging into a tonne of cleavage. There was a puff of extra skin under her chin, and the small vaccination scar on her arm looked like it’d been stretched. The nose piercing had disappeared.
I sat down. A waiter came over and we ordered coffees.
‘You look good,’ she said.
‘Thanks. You too. What happened to the ah—’ I tapped the side of my nose.
‘Oh, manager made me take it out, and the hole closed.’
‘Ah, sucks. So how have you been?’
‘Good. I start my cert three for childcare soon, and you know—just lovin’ life. Having fun.’ She smiled.
‘Yeah, I’ve heard you’re—doing a lot of things. Which is good—you know that you’re having fun but just be careful. There’s plenty of t—’
‘I am.’ She narrowed her eyes. ‘I don’t know what you heard, but I’m fine.’
‘Sorry, I just—’ Our coffees arrived, and I was glad for the interruption. ‘So how’s your mum?’
‘She’s—you know—last week was a year since Nanna died so—’
‘Right, I’m sorry.’ I shook my head. ‘A year already, hard to believe.’
We sat, silent and awkward, for a bit. I’d forgotten about that day. Things were good then. Or at least I hadn’t let myself think about the doubt that would soon gnaw up my gut. I’d been on my way to play pickup basketball with my mates when Hannah called. She was crying.
‘Baby, what’s wrong? What happened?’
‘Nanna she’s—she’s gone. I know you were gonna play with your friends, but I need a—could you come over?’
‘Oh, baby. I’m so sorry. Of course, I’m on my way.’
It wasn’t a shock. Nanna had been sick for a while and she was old, eighties I think, but they were close, three generations of women, no men. Hannah’s dad had never been in the picture, and Nanna’s husband was long dead and estranged before that. Hannah said when her mum was drunk once she told her he used to touch her and Nanna knew but didn’t do anything until it was too late. As I knew Nanna, on the handful of times I’d met her, she was softly spoken, drank from a bottomless cup of tea and wore itchy-looking woolen cardigans with pearl buttons and a golden brooch—the shape of a flower. A roadmap of blue and purple veins rose from the back of her hands and white hair crowned her head, thin enough for me to see the root of each strand. She called me Corey, Hannah’s ex’s name, even though Hannah corrected her plenty of times.
Hannah opened the door in her year twelve hoodie—it was navy with the names of everyone in her school year printed on the back and her chosen nickname in bold white capitals across the shoulders. BABY HAN it read. That was her comfort jumper, for when she was feeling ill or sad or angry at her mum. I held my arms open. ‘Are you okay, baby?’
She shook her head, stepped forward and buried her head in my chest. I cinched my arms tight and listened to her muffled sobs until they ebbed. She pulled away and I followed her inside.
Nothing had changed. I don’t know what I was expecting—black lace draped over the furniture, the cool tingle of a ghost. ‘Is your mum home? I should probably give her my—you know.’
‘No, she’s at the hospital. She was at Nanna’s when—’
I nodded and gave her another brief hug. ‘Do you want to go there? I’m happy to drive you.’
‘No. Can we just—’ She took a hold of my hand and led me into her room. Inside, she closed the heavy curtains by the window, shutting out the daylight before lying down on her bed and asking me to shut the door. ‘I feel like being in the dark,’ she said.
With my hands out in front of me, I found the bed and carefully lay down next to her, not knowing what to say or do.
‘I knew it was gonna happen.’ She was whispering. ‘But I wasn’t ready, you know?’
I rolled onto my side, reached out tentatively to where I thought her head might be and threaded my fingers through her hair. ‘I’m not sure if that’s a thing—being ready I mean.’ I moved my hands down and gently kneaded her neck. She had pain there sometimes, ‘cause of her boobs, she said.
Her hand grabbed mine and drew it away from her neck. I felt her lips on my fingers and then they were on my chin and cheeks and forehead and mouth. They were salty. What’s she doing? What were you meant to do when somebody died? Probably not have sex. Should I stop her? Her hand shifted to my jeans and the bulge that was already there. She might get upset if I suggest she’s not thinking straight? Her fingers fumbled with my belt. I took a hold of her hip and opened my mouth to hers.
That time was different. She didn’t speak, scream, moan, scratch or bite. But she did tie her legs together behind my back and hardly separate her mouth from mine, but to breathe.
Afterwards, we lay silent in the dark—her back curled against my front. I kissed the top of her head and rested my chin on her hair, listening to her breaths, long and steady through her nose, until I fell asleep.
Things were good actually. We were good back then. I took a sip of my coffee. ‘So your message said you needed to talk about something?’
‘Yeah. Okay, here goes. I went to the doctor—couple months after we broke up. Check up, you know—wasn’t sure if I should tell you but anyway so—it turns out that I was pregnant.’
‘But I’m not. I’m not now. I just was.’
‘But how do you—how do you know?’
‘The doctor told me and—’
‘Yeah. She said I was, but I lost it, and I had to go back there so they could get it all—you know—out.’
‘Jesus. And you think it was—me?’
‘But haven’t you—I mean with other guys?’
‘No—not then, not for when they said it happened.’
‘Why didn’t—why didn’t you tell me?’
‘You weren’t—you kept ignoring me.’
‘Oh, right. Sorry I—so are you okay? After going back to the doctor?’
‘Yeah, I’m okay.’
I shook my head. ‘Crazy to think about, huh—us having a kid I mean.’
She gave me a half-smile and sipped her coffee. ‘Uh-huh.’
The idea of it was too big. I changed the topic to deli gossip. Small talk, I could handle, but it was still there, and I needed more time with it so, once we’d finished our coffees and were on the pavement outside the cafe, I offered her a lift home, even though I knew she lived only a short walk from where I’d parked.
In the car, I put the radio on. There were memories for Hannah in that passenger seat, and I thought she might get nostalgic, but I also wanted to give myself some time to think. A fucking baby. Who’d have thought? Lucky it didn’t turn out. Must’ve been all the booze and drugs, she’d know that—I’m not exactly going to point it out. What would I have done if we were still together and she wanted to keep it? Shit. Marry her probably, move in with my parents until we could save up enough for our own place. Never see my mates again, take a job with the first firm that’d have me and stay there forever. Fuck. Dodged a bullet there. But what about her? Did she think that was her shot at escaping life with her mum? That the baby was like the physical representation of our love? Now dead.
I parked across from the building, in front of the NO STANDING sign half-blocked by low-hanging tree branches—my old spot. I switched the engine off and Hannah unclipped her seatbelt before grabbing her bag from the footwell and placing it in her lap.
‘Thanks. It’s been fun. Let’s do it ag—’
I unclipped my seatbelt as well. ‘Why don’t I walk you to the door, like I used to,’ I said, smiling, not sure why I suggested that. Maybe I was the nostalgic one.
At the top of the stairs, she unlocked the green door to her apartment and held it an inch open. ‘So, do you wanna come in?’
Did I? Why else did I come up there? ‘Is your mum home? Not that I—it’s just I don’t imagine she likes me much after the—you know, and I don’t want to upset her so—’
‘No, she’s out.’
Hannah went to her room, and I followed. It was the same, except the framed photograph of us was gone from her bedside, as were the pictures of me cut out and stuck onto her corkboard collage of family, friends and important moments.
She dropped her bag on the ground and sat on the edge of her bed. I sat beside her, leaving a gap between us. Nervous, but not sure why. I wasn’t going to do anything stupid.
‘So I know you don’t—I know it’s weird but—would you mind, my neck still hurts and I don’t have anyone to—’
‘Okay, sure. Clothes on, though.’ I laughed.
She smiled weakly and unclasped her necklace, dropping it onto the bed before turning her back to me. Lightly, I placed my hands on her shoulders, fingers over the front, thumbs on the back and worked my way inward.
Gradually, I increased the pressure and shifted to her shoulder blades, upper ribs, and then hips, rubbing up and down, lower and lower until I caught myself and pulled away. ‘I’m sorry. It’s not what I want. I should go.’
‘Wait. Please. It’s just—no-one has touched me like that since—’ I recognised the choke in her voice. ‘Could we just—could you—would you mind just holding me. Just for a little while? I won’t try to kiss you, I promise.’
It’d been nice to touch her too. The hollows of the hips I used to hold onto, light hairs on her back, tickling my fingertips. It was nice to be wanted like that too. ‘Okay.’
We both lay down on the bed, awkward and slow. She spun from me, breathing fast and shallow as though she were scared. I rolled onto my side, dug one arm beneath her waist, hung the other over her and held them together. Then she shuffled toward me, pressing her back into my chest, and I asked if she wanted me to turn out the light.
Ashley Goldberg is an Australian writer. His fiction has appeared in The Honest Ulsterman, Tincture Journal, Blue Monday Review, Offset Journal, F(r)iction and Award Winning Australian Writing 2016. In 2015, he won the Maribyrnong Excellence in Creative Arts award for his fiction. Ashley has a Graduate Diploma of Professional Writing from the University of Canberra and an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and is currently long listed for the 2017/18 Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize.
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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